Worlds in Indigenous Words

Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs

Artistic expression is indispensable to the perpetuation of healthy societies. Self-reflection is the foundation of understanding and it is artists who shoulder this heavy societal mantle. Elsie Paul, a ɬa?amɩn (Sliammon) elder, authored Written as I Remember It in collaboration with historian Paige Raibmon and Harmony Johnson, Paul’s granddaughter. Teachings and history are integrated throughout Written as I Remember It. Distinguished author, editor, journalist, scriptwriter, and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor belongs to the Curve Lake First Nation of Ontario. His edited volume Me Artsy is preceded by Me Funny and Me Sexy. Me Artsy deconstructs traditional and contemporary expressions of First Nations identities in art. It dwells upon the ways in which indigenous “artistic spirit” interprets and reveals the workings of society.

Written as I Remember It communicates ?əms ta?aw (“our teachings”): the teachings of the ɬa?amɩn people that are “the very essence” of their “well-being.” Paul is not an “informant” generating primary research material from which academics produce secondary publications. She is a skilled historian in her own right. Paul’s authority in sharing these teachings is underscored by a controversial argument that university research ethics boards’ requirements that band council consent be given before indigenous histories are collected undermines individual adult agency. Governing ethical principles of protection may cloak a much older paternalistic wardship imposed on First Nations peoples. Raibmon challenges settler paradigms by invoking “transformational listening” that does not claim a total rational understanding of complex indigenous teachings. Even settler allies of indigenous peoples can over-identify with compelling stories to the extent of claiming to embody First Nations experiences themselves. Raibmon explains that this unwittingly denies indigenous rights to difference.

Indigenous interactions with the nation-state are haunted by a sense of “being fenced in.” Paul describes an indigenous world in which territory matters intensely yet people live with a freedom of movement. Such fluidity was possible even though neighbouring peoples had particular uses for shared territories. Consequently, contemporary state maps of indigenous lands depict overlapping claims of neighbouring First Nations. Continuing the imperial tradition, these maps are erroneously used to infer inconsistent indigenous use and to negate claims to sovereign territory. The movement and self-reliance described by Paul nonetheless has order and those “that didn’t, you know, abide by the rules . . . were dealt with accordingly.” Indigenous sovereign territories were known and put to good use.

The contributors to Me Artsy are eminent and multifaceted. Although each has a preferred artistic medium, all have turned to the purpose of artistic edification. Visual artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ contribution is a surprise. He submitted a Haida Manga. Zacharias Kunuk, director of 2001 Cannes Caméra d’Or prize-winning Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, describes his early life in a sod house on Baffin Island when he believed they “were the only people on Earth.” Kunuk’s talent is using art to communicate “how aboriginal cultures have always fascinated” him. Taylor’s contributors share a sense that indigenous cultures respect the need for artistic expression. Actor and playwright Monique Mojica’s mother recognized that she was born to be an artist and nurtured her development; however, Mojica did not see indigenous art included as “high art” or as an influence on post-World War II North American identity. She decolonized her fear that ignorance of certain traditional cultural information would delegitimize expressions of indigenous identities and learned that, for an artist, “one of the most important things . . . is to be a receptor.” Despite her remarkable artistic achievements, Maxine Noel goes as far as asserting that she is “not really” artsy. She is simply “breathing the healing air . . . sharing that air and that healing with the world” now and for “tomorrow’s children.” Art is part of a full, vibrant, and continuing existence rather than a touristic legacy of traditional craftsmanship.

Written as I Remember It balances Paul’s leading voice throughout the bulk of the book with Raibon’s illuminating introduction and other helpful elements that enable readers to immerse themselves more deeply in the written ɬa?amɩn language. Its value as a resource is inextricable from Paul’s ability to tell a good story. It is this point that so many of Taylor’s contributors make through their examinations of art and indigenous identities. As Thomas King so memorably stated, the “truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Children’s stories are often dismissed by an adult conceit that separates itself from childhood and professes utter factuality. The crucial addendum is that the word “story” should connote far more than child-centred narratives. Stories are powerful, durable, and practical artistic articulations of the worlds in which we live. Art permeates life and is a pillar of indigenous resilience.


This review “Worlds in Indigenous Words” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 147-149.

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